My mother has always loved the telephone. In the more leisurely era in which she lived most of her adult life, she touched base with about a dozen friends a day.
Not to mention the need to talk to her daughter—me—a lot. When I went away to college, I was required to phone home every Sunday, collect. And although this was back in the days when long-distance phone calls were quite expensive relative to other items, these calls were hardly short: my mother could talk. In addition, there was usually one and often two more phone call a week from her to me.
Later on when I was a young mother and phone rates had gone down, I heard from my mother at least every other day. She was intensely curious about my life, about the newest exploits of her grandson, about the news of the world, about the weather where I lived. The exchanges were usually saved from perceptions of undue prying by the fact that my mother was lively and funny, and that she had an active life herself, filled with friends and then a live-in “boyfriend” with whom she still traveled the world.
When she became very elderly and was alone again, she moved north to be near me. Always an anxious woman, she became more so, and the calls increased in frequency until they become close to a daily event or even a twice- or thrice-daily event if things were bad with her.
Now they were often about some sort of difficulty she was in. Her eyes hurt. She needed to go to the doctor. Could I please bring some bananas; she was out of them. Maybe I shouldn’t be driving in the dark, or in the rain. Certainly not in the snow. The people in the independent living facility where she lived were boring. Another lifelong friend had died.
My mother also knew that the best way to reach me by phone was to call early in the morning and wake me up. This was not done out of any desire to see me suffer; she is not a mean woman. But by trial and error she had learned that snatching me from slumber almost guaranteed her a captive audience, and I decided not to fight it.
It was all okay with me because my mother continued to be curious about my life; and to be both interested and interesting in her observations about herself, other people, and the world around her. She was perplexed by my political views, but only poked fun at me now and then about my strange defection from the obviously-correct camp of liberalism.
When my mother had her stroke three years ago things changed, even after her recovery and her move back to New York. Her memory wasn’t as good, but that wasn’t really it. If I had to put my finger on the biggest change, it consisted of two things: shockingly, she no longer initiated phone calls. And she no longer seemed particularly curious about what I was doing.
Now I call her, about every other day. Phone calls from her are rare and almost startling occasions, usually evidence that something’s wrong. Once she was distraught because she’d received a call from a convict in Louisiana (as it turned out; she hadn’t known that’s who he actually was at the outset) claiming to be a relative needing her to wire him money. Another time there was better news; she was just thanking me for a book I’d sent her. But whether good or bad, calls from her to me are now an extreme rarity.
And in what to me is a sadder development, when I phone my mother now it’s a struggle to get her to stay on the phone more than a minute. Those leisurely talks are no more.
Nor does she ask questions, except for ones that have taken on a ritual quality. When I phone, she almost always sounds very happy, but she invariably asks the same question, and in a slightly singsong voice: how are you, and where are you? She seems to want to locate me both in time and space in order to get her bearings too. There are few other questions—except that she nearly always asks after my son, her grandson—and what she does ask is almost always very general rather than specific, with no follow-up questions. And although she sounds happy enough and keeps thanking me for calling and being so thoughtful, she is clearly eager not to linger on the phone very long—and her new definition of “linger” seems to be anything more than thirty seconds.
Her motivation is certainly not to save money: in one of the few instances of true progress in our lives, long-distance phone calls are now included in her fairly low base rate of phone service. It seems, however, that as often happens with a person who has become very old (my mother is now just three months short of her ninety-fifth birthday), energy diminishes and engagement with the world (even the world of those one loves) fades.
I get the impression it’s all rather distant to her. She wants to get back to the book she’s reading, which is much more immediate. She lives far more in the present than she ever did before, and if the present isn’t all that exciting and stimulating, at least she’s (according to her report) “content.” “I can’t complain” is another mantra, although recently there was a flash of her old sense of humor when she added, “Well, I could, but I won’t.”
It’s okay; I’m not really complaining, either. Although she’s got memory problems, so far we’ve been spared (knock wood) real senility, such as the horror of the steady loss of memory and personality that is Alzheimer’s. My mother is still very recognizably herself, just a far less talkative version of herself. And in an odd but welcome twist, the fact that she now lives in a very controlled environment seems to have damped down her lifelong anxiety; she’s never been keen on surprises.
Another benefit is the fact that I no longer get those almost-daily wakeup calls. It’s funny, though; I almost miss them.